NEW YORK — Donald Trump was held in contempt of court on Monday for failing to turn over records being sought as part of a civil probe into his business practices — a striking public admonishment of the former president, who remains dominant in the Republican Party and has signaled he will again seek the White House in 2024.
Lawyers from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) did not seek to jail Trump, but asked New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron to penalize him financially for failing to comply with an order to produce the documents by March 31. Engoron agreed to fine Trump $10,000 for each day the failure to comply continues.
Trump’s legal team has said there are no records in his possession that match what the attorney general’s team has asked for. On Monday, a lawyer for Trump said she will appeal the decision to hold him in contempt.
“Mr. Trump, I know you take your business seriously, and I take mine seriously,” Engoron said in issuing his order — appearing to address the former president directly even though Trump was not in the courtroom for the hearing.
The judge said he would hold Trump in contempt until the former president and his legal team either submit the records or — if they maintain the documents being sought do not exist — fully detail the extent of their search. He asked for the “who, what, when, where and how any search was conducted.”
James has said Trump and the family-run Trump Organization may have broken the law by manipulating the value of their assets to secure better loan rates and tax benefits. Her probe could lead to a lawsuit against the Trumps and their business. James is also a partner in a separate criminal investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that is focused on the same issues.
Although Bragg’s investigation appeared to lose steam earlier this year with the departure of two senior prosecutors, James’s civil probe has resulted in orders from Engoron to turn over the documents and for Trump and his children to sit for depositions. The Trumps have appealed the deposition order, with arguments scheduled for May 11.
The former president is also the target of several other political and legal probes involving issues that include his conduct around the 2020 election results; a defamation lawsuit filed by author and columnist E. Jean Carroll; and his removal of White House records to Mar-a-Lago.
Engoron’s order “doesn’t mean documents will necessarily be produced” and could lead to further delays in the civil investigation if Trump’s team appeals, said Jessica Roth, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Cardozo Law School. She said James’s decision to seek the contempt order shows “the seriousness with which [the attorney general] is taking the investigation” although the “actual effect of the order may be minimal.”
The Trump Organization has provided more than 6 million pages of records to James’s office. But investigators are still seeking items from Trump’s personal files, including handwritten notes related to statements of his net worth that he signed and submitted to banks and other parties. The documents would potentially enable investigators to compare copies of records they believe Trump maintained to other documents they have collected.
A tax fraud case filed last year against the Trump Organization and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, relied heavily on the alleged existence of two sets of books kept at the company. Prosecutors said the duplication was proof of an attempt to conceal the use of untaxed benefits to compensate executives.
In court on Monday, Trump lawyer Alina Habba said there was a “very diligent search” for the records James asked for in a December subpoena and that none were found aside from documents that had already been handed over.
The contempt order could be lifted quickly if Habba provides a detailed accounting of her team’s search, and if Engoron finds that explanation sufficient. The judge said Monday that Habba’s previous response to the records request was “boiler plate” and “woefully insufficient.”
Engoron also asked Habba — who said she questioned Trump at Mar-a-Lago as part of her search — why Trump hadn’t himself sworn in an affidavit that the searches turned up nothing.
In his ruling, Engoron noted that Trump had not put his own name to the response, but stopped short of ordering him to do so.
Habba called Trump “an honest person, much to the dismay of certain people in this room.” After the hearing, she said she will appeal the contempt order and that Trump will not supply an affidavit himself.
Investigators involved in the probe have said that although Trump may not have used email or text messages in conducting his business, they are seeking Post-it notes and other handwritten missives that could shed light on internal deliberations at the Trump Organization — specifically related to Trump’s statements of financial condition that he routinely provided to banks and other parties.
James’s office has said valuations in some cases were wildly different and that Trump might have used the process to cheat lenders and tax authorities.
Also at Monday’s hearing, a lawyer for James’s office said an “enforcement action” may soon be taken in the long-running civil investigation. A successful lawsuit by James could result in significant financial penalties and other repercussions for Trump’s family real estate and golf resort operation.
Engoron ordered real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield to comply with subpoenas from James requesting records relating to its appraisals of three Trump properties: the Seven Springs Estate in Westchester County, Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles and 40 Wall Street in downtown Manhattan.